Former Ireland captain Rory Best has backed his country to challenge for a Six Nations Grand Slam but believes the appointments of Steve Borthwick and Warren Gatland have thrown “a big curveball” ahead of the tournament.
Borthwick was unveiled as Eddie Jones’ successor last month, just two weeks after Gatland returned to Wales, replacing Wayne Pivac for a second stint in charge.
Meanwhile, Ireland head into the Six Nations as the top-ranked side in world rugby after clinching a historic series success in New Zealand after securing the Triple Crown last year.
“It has probably brought a little bit of unknown,” Best said of the coaching alterations.
“If it had been Wayne Pivac and Eddie Jones, you would have a fair idea of what they are going to try to do.
“So that unknown creates a bit of instability in international rugby because Ireland are trying to prepare for a game against Wales at the start of a Six Nations based on historically what Warren Gatland’s done. Will he bring something different? You don’t know.
“You can only prepare for what you believe is going to happen, and England are the same.
“By the time Steve Borthwick gets to his fifth game in charge, they are going to be a different animal than they were in the autumn series and potentially at the very start of this campaign.
“England have so many players and a lot of really quality players that haven’t probably performed to the level that they should in a white jersey, and he will give them the belief of a fresh start.
The changes at the top of English and Welsh Rugby leads Best to think that Irish fans won’t be as confident of their chances ahead of the tournament.
“From an Irish point of view, it’s put in a big curveball in terms of all of a sudden two teams that you would expect to beat… as a fan now, you’re not as confident,” he added.
Ireland have won 16 of their last 18 fixtures, with one of their defeats against France in Paris last year. Les Bleus would ultimately go on to be crowned Grand Slam champions.
Best, who won the championship four times, expects Ireland to once again be in title contention having finished as runners-up last time out, but concedes that claiming the trophy will be far from straightforward.
“I think ultimately they will be fancying a Grand Slam,” said the 40-year-old. “I think it’s an incredibly tough year to do it.
“Ireland could get to that first mini-break two from two, full of confidence, momentum, everything going for them.
“But if they happen to come unstuck in Wales, and then you have France coming to the Aviva Stadium with the confidence and the class and the style that they’ll bring, it’s as likely to be two from two as it is two from two on the reverse and that’s what makes the Six Nations brilliant.
“Ireland are capable of certainly a championship and potentially a Grand Slam, and it would be a massive marker to lay down with the quality of the Six Nations this year.”
Ireland head coach Andy Farrell named his Six Nations squad on Thursday, with the opening round of fixtures in the first week of February.
Ireland are away to Wales on February 4, with England hosting Scotland later in the day. The final match of the weekend sees Italy host France.
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